OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Something has to give between the Ravens and the Cowboys on Sunday.
It’s the No. 1 run defense against the top rushing attack in the NFL.
The Cowboys have run for more than 100 yards in every game this season while Baltimore has allowed more than 65 rushing yards in a game just twice. It’s the kind of game outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has relished throughout his 14-year career while playing on some of the better defenses in franchise history.
These Ravens are out to prove they belong in that conversation.
“You want to play against the best,” Suggs said. “When you were 10 years old, you were like, ‘I want to go play in the NFL. I want to be considered one of the best players in the NFL.’ To be the best, you have to play the best. It is a challenge for our defense, but we accept it.”
No one anticipated this kind of success for the Cowboys, who have been led by two rookies on their way to an 8-1 start. Fourth-round quarterback Dak Prescott has taken the league by storm after replacing an injured Tony Romo in the preseason, but first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott has proven why he was the first running back selected in the top five overall picks of the draft in four years.
Leading the NFL with 1,0005 rushing yards and ranking fourth among qualified players in yards per carry (5.1), Elliott would have garnered much consideration from the Ravens had he fallen to the sixth overall pick, according to head coach John Harbaugh. The Ohio State product has emerged as a league MVP candidate with a combination of rare explosiveness and mature vision.
“I think he already had that. I don’t think they had to teach it to him,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why they drafted him where he was. He’s a special guy. The offensive line [also] deserves a lot of credit for the success they’re having.”
Though Elliott is a unique talent, the Dallas offensive line is the primary reason why he has a legitimate chance to break the rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards set by Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson in 1983. Comprised of three former first-round picks, the Cowboys unit is the highest graded in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Elliott has gained a whopping 439 rushing yards before contact, illustrating how much his offensive line has aided in his instant stardom. In contrast, the Ravens have run for a total of just 773 yards in 2016.
The Cowboys have played their share of shoddy run defenses — a list including San Francisco, Washington, Cincinnati, and Cleveland — but they largely had their way with top 10 run defenses in Green Bay, Chicago, and the New York Giants as well. In fact, the Packers entered Week 6 as the No. 1 run defense in the league and proceeded to give up 191 yards on 33 rushing attempts in a 30-16 home loss to Dallas.
“I definitely think they’re the most athletic,” said defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan about the Cowboys offensive line. “They can go from sideline to sideline, make the cut, blocks on the backside and those different things. It’s going to be a challenge for us. But at the same time, I don’t think they’ve seen a front like ours, either.
“It’s going to be on, and we’re going to be ready for the challenge.”
As impressive as the Dallas ground game has been, the Ravens’ run defense may own a more eye-popping résumé.
Consider that Baltimore has allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry while also giving up the longest run of the entire NFL season when Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell ran for an 85-yard touchdown in Week 2. That blemish can’t be erased, of course, but the Ravens have surrendered just under 2.9 yards per carry in opponents’ other 193 rushing attempts this season.
Baltimore has given up just two other runs of 20 or more yards this season while facing five teams — Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, and the New York Jets — currently ranking in the top 10 in yards per carry. Of the two occasions the Ravens have surrendered more than 65 rushing yards, one was the game in which Crowell recorded his league-long run and the other was against the Jets in Week 7 when Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley — two of the Ravens’ best run defenders — were out with injuries.
This stingy run defense falls well short of the 2000 Ravens who allowed a microscopic 2.68 rushing yards per carry in a historic season, but an imposing front seven led by nose tackle Brandon Williams, Mosley, and Suggs has its chance to make its biggest statement of the year by slowing Elliott and the red-hot Cowboys. That will be Baltimore’s best chance in trying to pull off the upset on Sunday.
Something will have to give.
“It’s what, nine games in? We’ve stopped the run, but are we going to slip up now and not be able to stop the run?” Harbaugh said. “You have to play every game the next week like it’s the most important game of the season. Our guys understand that. Our guys are going to get ready to play.”